Spencer (2021)

PABLO LARRAIN

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

///USA, 2021. , , , . Screenplay by . Cinematography by . Produced by , , , Pablo Larraín, , . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Spending holiday time with the in-laws is bad enough, but when you’re on the verge of divorce and they’re the centuries-old monarchs of one of the world’s most powerful countries, the prospect of forcing a smile through turkey dinners is that much more daunting. For the three days that this film takes place, Princess Diana () contemplates the crisis that she has reached after a decade of misery in a loveless marriage, trying to whip herself into agreeable shape while enjoying Christmas and Boxing Day at Sandringham with her children, her husband Prince Charles () and the rest of the reigning Windsors and, it cannot be overstated, she is failing miserably at the task. First she insists on driving herself to the property, getting lost on the way and delayed by her stopping to look at a scarecrow that is decked in her father’s coat (her now-boarded up childhood home is just over the hill from Sandringham, and this object is this film’s counterpart to the stag in The Queen).

Upon arrival at Sandringham, she refuses to take part in the annual tradition of weighing every member of the family before and after the holiday festivities (begun by King Edward VII in the early 1900s, guests showed proof of their enjoying themselves by gaining a minimum of three pounds). Diana, who has been struggling with an eating disorder for years, is a hard sell on the practice, treating it with the same good-natured dismissal that she does all the pomp and circumstance that she finds dusty about the royal family’s ways; the response is cold, glaring stares from her mother-in-law, who is given the opposite of the cushy and sympathetic portrayal we’ve come to love on The Crown and is portrayed as an icicle by a superbly understated (The House of Eliot), a Queen who has responded to the steep decline in her family’s political power by entrenching them that much more in every miniscule ritual to justify their existence to themselves, and, they believe, help control how they are treated by the press.

Diana’s clothing is pre-selected and labeled for each time of each day, meals are carefully prepared in advance by the busy kitchen staff (led by ) and served on schedule and in the proper order of dishes and courses, and the People’s Princess feels like she is haunting a house that is full of ghosts thanks to her in-laws taking no enjoyment in celebrating the holidays despite showing up to everything on the dot of the hour. Reality and fantasy begin to blend as we see Diana falling apart emotionally, sometimes doing so exuberantly (one of the film’s best sequences, eating her pearl necklace on Christmas Eve) as director Pablo Larrain gives us a solitary perspective of her immediate experience in one of the most widely discussed marital scandals of the last half-century, much in the sammer that he did so effectively with Jackie O.

Stewart pulls off the duties of biopic performances with impressive, if visible, effort, tilting her head to mimic Diana’s photo poses and carefully doling out that accent through clenched teeth; it’s possible that a British actor would have been a much better choice, but Stewart has always seemed a bit trapped in her own internal emotional conflicts and as such is perfect for a film that celebrates a woman who could never enjoy herself. The details in this film are exquisite, every piece of clothing is carefully, lovingly brought to exact life by designer Jacqueline Durran, the constant comparisons of Diana to Anne Boleyn are cohesively worked into the script, and subtle changes in Stewart’s tonal expressions, such as the way Diana relaxes around her children, are marvelous in their quiet dignity.

The film will annoy anyone looking for biographical accuracy, its purpose is emotional reality and nothing else, and the place at which we find our main character is when she has reached the point where she can no longer uphold the public façade of her marriage. She is, as she describes herself, a middle-class girl stuck in a royal world and feels the need to retreat to her boarded-up ancestral home, itself replete with ghosts, to find the answer to her wondering what she should do next. The climax of the piece is beautiful if possibly too understated to really sell the movie as more than a one-note experience, a confrontation with the elements of her past, and her realization that her Spencer background is just as bloodless and empty a reality as her current family situation. She has no choice but to strike ahead and follow her own lead (and the rest, as they say, is history).

Larrain opens the film with the dangerously unsubtle image of a bird carcass being driven over by big powerful vehicles, and introduces us to the house with a shot of the empty Sandringham kitchen sporting a sign that instructs the stuff to be as quiet as possible, a sacrament that the film takes quite seriously (and sometimes expresses brilliantly, such as the appearance of Camilla Parker-Bowles with not even a mention of her name). The drawbacks to a solid, if not groundbreaking, experience is that Stewart’s constant whispering sometimes feels overwhelming, and there’s simply no getting away from the fact that as thoughtful and sensitive as this exploration of this story is, it’s not revelatory in any way, even at its most inventive never presenting anything you didn’t already know or could not have guessed.

Toronto International Film Festival: 2021

Venice Film Festival: In Competition

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